Thousands of students across Windham County will be heading back to school this week. That means young children walking along sidewalks and crossing streets, and big yellow school buses chugging along the roads.

For children whose homes are too far to walk safely to school, the bus offers the best form of transportation. For starters, school buses keep an estimated 17.3 million cars off the roads surrounding schools each morning, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Every school bus equals 36 cars, and keeping these cars off the road translates into a national savings of 2.3 billion gallons of fuel, $6 billion, and 44.6 billion pounds of carbon monoxide.

Furthermore, the NHTSA says school buses are the safest mode of transportation for getting children back and forth to school. An estimated 58 percent of student fatalities during normal school travel hours involved a teen driver and 23 percent involved an adult driver, while only 1 percent of fatalities were of students traveling by school bus.

That's not to say there aren't risks, however. The NHTSA says an average of 18 school-age children die in school transportation-related crashes each year. On average, six of those are occupants of school buses while the remainder are pedestrians.

The bulk of these accidents and fatalities could be avoided if everyone would follow basic safety tips while buses are on the road and students are walking to school.


Advertisement

The biggest pet peeve for most school bus drivers is stop-arm violations (people who pass the bus while the red lights are flashing and the stop arm is extended).

While there are no national estimates on stop-arm violations, several states have conducted their own studies.

A one-day study was conducted in September 1996 in 119 of the 131 school divisions in Virginia. On that day, 3,394 Virginia motorists illegally passed a stopped school bus. Multiplying the results by a 180-day school year brings the total number of illegal passings to over 600,000 a year.

That same year, Illinois conducted a probability-based sample survey of 250 school bus drivers, who were asked to record stop-arm violations during a 41-school day time period. The 135 drivers who returned the survey reported 3,450 violations. Based on the findings, the estimated number of stop-arm violations each year in Illinois is over 1.9 million, making it a major traffic safety problem.

The NHTSA says the best way to curb these statistics is to educate the driving public on school bus safety. It seems to us the whole stop-arm violation problem has to do with people being more impatient and distracted than ignorant, but either way it obviously bears repeating. So here goes: Yellow flashing lights indicate that the bus is preparing to stop to pick up or drop off children. Drivers need to slow down and prepare to stop. Red flashing lights and an extended stop arm signal indicate that the bus is stopped, and that children are getting on or off. Cars must stop a safe distance away and not proceed until the red lights stop flashing, the stop sign folds back, and the bus continues on its way.

The NHTSA also offers several other tips to help keep students safe whether they're walking or riding a bus to school.

Tips for drivers:

-- When backing out of a driveway or leaving a garage, watch out for children walking or bicycling to school. Better yet, walk around your car or out to the sidewalk to check for any children walking in your path before you get in.

-- Drive slowly and watch for children walking in the street, especially if there are no sidewalks. Also be aware of children playing or waiting around bus stops.

-- Eliminate distractions and be alert and aware on the road. While children are typically taught about looking both ways, they could dart into the street without looking if they are late or distracted.

Tips for children:

-- Get to the bus stop at least five minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive.

-- When the bus approaches, stand at least six feet away from the curb, and line up away from the street.

-- Wait until the bus stops, the door opens and the driver says that it's OK before stepping onto the bus.

-- If you have to cross the street in front of the bus, walk on the sidewalk or along the side of the road to a point at least 10 feet ahead of the bus before you cross. Be sure the bus driver can see you, and you can see the bus driver.

-- Never walk behind the bus.

-- When getting off the bus wait for a signal from the driver before beginning to cross the street. When the driver signals, walk across the road, keeping an eye out for sudden traffic changes. Always look left, then right, and then left again before crossing.

Following these common sense rules and tips will ensure a safe school year for all of Windham County's children.